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Neural Effects of Mindful Attention on Sensory Information Processing

Principal Investigator:

Elena Antonova, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London

Mindful attention is sustained, non-anticipatory, open (unfiltered) and receptive. This mode of attention results in the lack of habituation to repetitive sensory stimulation in very experienced mindfulness practitioners. Such lack of habituation is also observed in schizophrenia. According to the model of attention filter protecting a low capacity cognitive system, such 'aberration' in sensory information processing in mindfulness practitioners should lead to information overload and cognitive fragmentation. This, in fact, is seen in the case of schizophrenia. However, previous research has shown mindful attention to associate with superior cognitive flexibility and emotion regulation. The present study will investigate the 'protective' neural effect of mindful attention on deautomatisation of the central inhibitory system by employing well-researched startle modulation paradigms: startle habituation and prepulse inhibition (PPI). Twenty experienced mindfulness meditators and twenty meditation-naïve healthy controls will undergo functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging during startle habituation and PPI. Mindfulness practice is predicted to result in the lack of startle habituation and attenuated PPI. Startle- and PPI-eliciting stimuli will be associated with the thalamic activation in both mindfulness practitioners and healthy controls, but it will be significantly reduced in controls during habituation. The activity of anterior cingulate associated with anticipatory attention will be attenuated, whereas dorsolateral prefrontal cortex associated with higher-order information integration will be stronger in mindfulness practitioners relative to controls. An effective connectivity analysis will be performed to investigate the top-down regulation of the thalamic activity by the anterior cingulate. This top-down regulation is predicted to be attenuated in mindfulness practitioners.


Elena Antonova, Ph.D., obtained her B.Sc. in Psychology in 2000 from the University College London, and then a Ph.D. in 2004 from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), King's College London, UK. From the beginning of her academic career she has developed an interest in the prevention, management and treatment of schizophrenia. Her Ph.D. addressed this through the study of the predictors of responsiveness to atypical antipsychotics using structural brain imaging. Subsequently, the work shifted towards the investigation of the predictors of responsiveness to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis. With the advent of mindfulness-based interventions, Elena has dedicated herself towards the development of the neuroscience of mindfulness and has conducted first UK-based study of neural correlates of mindfulness in experienced mindfulness practitioners funded by the personal grant from the British Academy. She is fully committed to furthering research into the neural effects of mindfulness and its application for the prevention and treatment of psychosis. Elena has always closely engaged with philosophical issues in cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry. In this domain, she has co-organised two conferences and co-founded the Maudsley Philosophy Group. She is also passionate about integrating mindfulness training into medical education to foster personal growth and empathic doctor-patient relationship in future medics.

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